What the New COVID Variant Means for the Pandemic

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(Artwork/Ava Fong’23)

Adya Jha, Online Staff Writer

After being declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) in March of 2020, COVID-19 has upended our lives, transforming the world as we know it. Months of staying quarantined inside, wearing masks, and following health protocols have created an almost alternate reality for many. It was quite a surprise for many to hear that after finally hearing the hopeful news of a vaccine, a new COVID-19 variant had emerged in the United Kingdom; more contagious than the original, and, according to preliminary reports from the UK government, possibly deadlier. While this may seem like frightening news, we must consider all available information at the time and view the variant with a lens of scientific skepticism. 

New variants of a virus are not abnormal; in fact, scientists expect them. As time passes and the virus spreads, it mutates and separates. In the United States, multiple COVID-19 variants have been detected with no perceivable difference. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), three variants are currently spreading and getting significant attention: a variant of COVID-19 in the UK, B.1.1.7, has emerged with unusually high rates of infection, variant 1.351 in South Africa, and a variant called P.1 in Brazil that has been transmitted to Japan by foreign travel. All three have now been reported in the United States. Studies have shown that these variants seem to be spreading more quickly than others. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has recently warned that the UK variant may be more deadly, while experts claim it is too early to resolve the situation.

This begs the question: how effective are vaccines in fighting against these new variants? Freshman and Science Olympiad team member Evan Lin (who competes for the “Disease Detectives” event) provides some insight: “To my awareness, the mRNA vaccines work by having your immune system learn to attack the spike protein on COVID-19 chemically. The thing is, different variants have different proteins. A vaccine might be able to train your immune system to attack one specific protein, but it might not be able to cover other proteins that could be found on other variants.” Simply put, some of these COVID variants may be more deadly than others or easier to be spread. The South African variant, especially, has become worrisome to scientists. Early stages of trials demonstrate that many COVID-19 vaccines experience a significant drop in efficacy when used against the strain. PDS Director of Wellness, Dr. Shah, shares: “Specifically the B.1.1.7 variant ( the one identified in Great Britain) is different from the original in that the spike proteins on the viral surface which are responsible for getting into our cells, is actually changed to be more “sticky” and more easily penetrable into the cells. Scientists say that this is probably the reason this variant is more transmissible- meaning people can get this one easier than the original.”

As in any scientific process, the situation is rapidly changing as new facts come to light, and it is not easy to make any conclusive predictions yet. However, the CDC has predicted that the UK variant could become the US’ dominant strain as early as March 2021 and that other strains like the South African 1.351 may become serious issues in the future. As little is known about the COVID strains, predictions may be all we have to rely on as of right now.

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